On June 13, US President Barack Obama, campaigning for reelection, plans to honor President Shimon Peres by bestowing upon him the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. Whatever Obama’s motives, this could constitute a source of pride for much-maligned Israel.

But it could turn into a hollow gesture should Peres be feted while Jonathan Pollard is still denied freedom. Obama holds the key to Pollard’s cell. It behooves Peres to persuade Obama to use it. Peres, thus far, has been true to his promise and did formally ask for Pollard’s release.

Pollard is in his 27th year of imprisonment for passing American intelligence (about inimical third countries – Iraq, Libya, the then-PLO headquarters in Tunis) to a friendly country (Israel). He should have been freed long ago and not only because his health is now failing.

His continued incarceration is plainly unjust. His sentence to begin with was ultra-harsh. Lighter punishment was meted to assorted US spies for greater offenses, including those involving tangible security risks to America.

Although Pollard’s life-term is unprecedented for transferring classified material to an ally, no US administration in nearly three decades countenanced pardoning him. This, despite the fact that in 1991 Pollard publicly apologized and expressed further remorse in a 1996 open letter to then-president Bill Clinton. In 1998, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu admitted that Pollard spied for Israel and sought to free him as part of the Wye River deal. Clinton reneged on the agreement.

As things stand, it appears that the current administration is toying with the emotions of the entire Israeli collective. It issued an ambiguous statement which news agencies impetuously misrepresented as a rejection of Peres’s request. Peres held his own and released a communiqué saying he has not received Obama’s response and still awaits it.

At this point for Obama to rebuff Peres would represent a massive slap in the face. Obama didn’t refuse him – not officially or personally. The ball is still in play.

And it is quite a unique play. The medal, which was to have been a symbolic pat on Israel’s back with multiple political perks for both sides, has been turned into a catalyst for reinforcing another dynamic – the clamor for Pollard’s long overdue liberation.

Because of the medal, two presidents are now forced into an apparent stand-off. Pollard, though physically in his North Carolina maximum security prison, has somehow come between Obama and Peres like the veritable pink elephant in the room – a huge moral predicament that everyone is acutely aware of, but would have preferred to avoid.

If Obama tries to go ahead with Peres’s ceremony while concomitantly keeping Pollard behind bars, he would be seen as giving the lie to his own declared motives for honoring Peres. If Peres is honored while Pollard keeps languishing, his image too would suffer a blow which Obama certainly does not intend to deliver.

What may have started as a public relations stunt that could have afforded beleaguered Israel rare contentment, might be exposed as another instance of disingenuous posturing on the American side and outright humiliation for the Israeli.

But this is not preordained. Should Pollard be freed pre-ceremony, all Israelis would sincerely share in the joy of Peres’s honor. For this, Obama needs recall that he presents himself as the voice of American conscience. It is time that he perform what is incontrovertibly an act of conscience.

Moreover, for Obama it is risk-free, rife with potential reward and wholly without political detriment. Nobody can credibly persevere in the sham that Pollard threatens American national security interests. Indeed the pendulum has swung hard and many former higher-ups (like ex-secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz) now support Pollard’s release.

We cannot escape the impression that the only reason Pollard is still denied his freedom is because he is Jewish and hence his disproportionate punishment.

It is certainly high time the torment of the aging Pollard be discontinued. He has more than paid for what he did. Holding him captive as he grows older and infirm serves no purpose and can be judged as nothing but vindictive and sadistic.

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